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Dahl, Audun; Schmidt, Marco F. H. (2018): Preschoolers, but not adults, treat instrumental norms as categorical imperatives. In: Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Vol. 165: pp. 85-100
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Hypothetical norms apply only when agents have specific goals, whereas categorical norms apply regardless of what agents want. Deciding whether a rule is hypothetical or categorical is crucial for navigating many social situations encountered by children and adults. The current research investigated whether preschoolers viewed instrumental norms (about how to accomplish practical tasks), prudential norms (pertaining to agent welfare), and moral norms (pertaining to others' welfare) as hypothetical or categorical. A second main question was whether preschoolers draw distinctions between instrumental and other norms. Participants were interviewed about norm violations in which the agent did or did not have the relevant goal. The goal manipulation had no effect on children's judgments of permissibility;most children treated all three norm types as categorical. Nevertheless, children distinguished instrumental events from prudential and moral events along several dimensions. In contrast, participants in two adult samples treated instrumental norms, and some prudential norms, as hypothetical, but treated moral norms as categorical (applicable regardless of agent goal). These findings suggest that preschoolers do not yet reliably distinguish between hypothetical and categorical norms, yet do view rules of instrumental rationality as a distinct type of norms.